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Israel accuses ‘Iranian terrorism’ of being behind ‘suicide drone’ attack on oil tanker

Israel has accused Iran of being behind a ‘drone’ attack on an oil tanker which killed two people – a British national and a Romanian citizen – off Oman’s coast.

The tanker, called MV Mercer Street, is operated by London-based company Zodiac Maritime which is owned by Israeli shipping billionaire Eyal Ofer.

The company said it was working to establish what happened in the attack, which saw the vessel targeted north-east of the Omani island of Masirah, 185 miles south-east of the capital Muscat, on Thursday.

Speaking of Friday, Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid blamed ‘Iranian terrorism’ for the attack, saying Tehran is ‘sowing violence and destruction.’

The Islamic Republic ‘is not only Israel’s problem, but it is the world’s problem. Its behaviour threatens the freedom of navigation and global commerce’, he added.

A US official said it appeared a ‘suicide drone’ was used in the incident, raising the possibility that a government or a militia group was behind the incident. 

Mercer Street off Cape Town, South Africa. The oil tanker owned by an Israeli billionaire reportedly came under attack off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea. Two people – including a British man – are reported to have been killed in the attack

Analysts said the attack bore all the hallmarks of tit-for-tat exchanges in the ‘shadow war’ between Israel and Iran, in which vessels linked to each nation have been targeted in waters around the Gulf.

The Israeli official warned that ‘our campaign against them (Iran) will continue’.

Zodiac Maritime confirmed the incident on board the tanker left one Romanian and a UK national dead.

‘We are not aware of harm to any other personnel,’ it said in a statement, adding that the Japanese-owned tanker was back under the control of its crew and was steaming to an undisclosed ‘safe location’ under US naval escort.

The British victim worked as a guard for UK maritime security firm Ambrey, the company said.

The United States, a key ally of Israel and arch-rival of Iran, expressed concern and said it was monitoring the situation.

‘We are urgently working with our partners, our international partners, to establish the facts,’ a State Department spokeswoman said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the raid. However, others have also blamed Iran amid the unravelling of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

The tanker was in the northern Indian Ocean, travelling from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates at the time of the incident. 

United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, a Royal Navy warning system for attacks on shipping, said an investigation was under way and that coalition forces were taking part. 

Other Israeli-linked ships have been targeted in recent months amid a shadow war with Iran, with Israeli officials blaming the Islamic Republic for the assaults

Other Israeli-linked ships have been targeted in recent months amid a shadow war with Iran, with Israeli officials blaming the Islamic Republic for the assaults

Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iranian diplomacy and security at Israel’s IDC Herzliya university, told AFP news agency the attack was ‘most probably Iran’.

Al-Alam, Iran’s state TV channel in Arabic, citing ‘informed regional sources’ said the attack was a ‘response to a recent Israeli attack’ targeting an airport in central Syria. It did not provide further details.

Oman’s state news agency said the country’s navy dispatched a ship and confirmed the attack took place outside the sultanate’s territorial waters.

Exact details of how the attack occurred have yet to be confirmed.

Javedanfar said Iranians ‘feel badly disadvantaged when it comes to responding to attacks inside Iran which have been associated to Israel’, including an April strike on the Natanz uranium enrichment site reportedly executed by Israel.

An attack on a maritime vessel ‘is one area where (Iranians) feel they can try to at least retaliate,’ he added, calling the latest strike an escalation in the ‘shadow war’ between the two Middle Eastern powerhouses.

But he assessed the fundamental dynamics of the rivalry would change little. ‘Both sides will continue what they’re doing,’ he said.

Zodiac Maritime is part of the Zodiac Group, owned by billionaire Ofer, whose enterprises span shipping, real estate, technology, banking and investments.

Ofer was ranked the world’s 197th richest person by Forbes this year, with a fortune of $11.3 billion. His firms own and operate over 160 ships.

The Arabian Sea and surrounding Indian Ocean were plagued by piracy around a decade ago, but incidents have waned in recent years after foreign navies stepped up patrols.

Speaking of Friday, Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid  (pictured earlier this week) blamed 'Iranian terrorism' for the attack, saying Tehran is 'sowing violence and destruction'

Speaking of Friday, Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid  (pictured earlier this week) blamed ‘Iranian terrorism’ for the attack, saying Tehran is ‘sowing violence and destruction’

Zodiac initially called the attack on the MT Mercer Street ‘a suspected piracy incident’.

The vessel was in the northern Indian Ocean, travelling from Dar es Salaam to Fujairah with no cargo onboard when the attack occurred, it added.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) – an anti-piracy taskforce run by the Royal Navy – also issued a report of ‘a vessel being attacked’ around 152 nautical miles (280 kilometres) off the coast of Oman.

It classed the incident as ‘non-piracy’.

Maritime industry analysts Dryad Global said the attack was similar to previous incidents against vessels associated with Israel and Iran.

Two ships operated by Israeli firm Ray Shipping were attacked earlier this year.

‘The attack on the MT Mercer Street is now assessed to be the fifth attack against a vessel connected to Israel,’ Dryad said in an email note on the incident.

But it said before the deaths were confirmed that the loss of two personnel ‘would represent a significant escalation in events that… would likely lead to significant international condemnation and would require diplomatic redress’.

It advised clients that the risk to commercial vessels associated with Israel and Iran in the Gulf waterway was ‘heightened’, pointing to lingering tensions between the two powers over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

‘Such incidents remain irregular and are highly unlikely to impact normal commercial operations throughout the region,’ it added.

Israel considers Iran to be its biggest threat, citing Tehran’s hostile rhetoric, support for anti-Israeli militant groups and growing influence in the region.

The remarks came after an earlier report from private maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global referred to a drone sighting involving the vessel prior to the attack. 

Iran and Yemen’s Tehran-backed Houthi rebels have employed ‘suicide’ drones in the past. These are unmanned aircraft loaded with explosives that detonate on impact with a target.

British maritime security firm Ambrey confirmed the attack had killed one of its team members.

It said it was working with authorities and offering support to the victim’s family. Omani officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The sultanate sits on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula and is along vital shipping routes for cargo and energy moving through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf.

The deaths mark the first fatalities after years of assaults targeting shipping in the region.

Other Israeli-linked ships have been targeted in recent months amid a shadow war with Iran, with Israeli officials blaming the Islamic Republic for the assaults.

Israel, meanwhile, has been suspected in a series of major attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran also saw its largest warship recently sink in mysterious circumstances in the nearby Gulf of Oman. 

Thursday’s attack comes amid heightened tensions over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal and as negotiations over restoring the accord have stalled in Vienna.

The series of ship attacks suspected to have been carried out by Iran began a year after then US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in 2018.

Iranian media quoted foreign press reports on Thursday’s attack but did not offer anything more.